As many of you probably know, I spent this past Christmas in Oxford. It was a bittersweet experience; this was my first Christmas away from home and my family. I’m honestly not quite sure how well I would have fared without the internet to bring us together, as much as it could at any rate. Christmas Eve, I made sure to call home and talk with some of my extended family during our annual grab-bag and gift exchange. My parents also mailed me a couple boxes of presents and, through no short of a Christmas miracle, they arrived on-time and we were able through Skype to open presents together on Christmas morning (well, Christmas afternoon for me). My parents even mailed me a stocking! Although nothing could compare with actually being home for Christmas, we made the best of it, and it went far better than I had dared hope.
Spending this Christmas in the UK has given me the opportunity to see the season in a different light. I have been regularly attending services at the University Church of St. Mary’s, and it was interesting for me to compare how the Christmas season is celebrated here versus back home. Aside from a few different hymns, much of the services were the same. There were still the obligatory abundance of readings from Isaiah (I think one every single Sunday of the Advent season), children still came up and lit the Advent candles, and there was still a ceramic nativity scene. On Christmas Eve I attended a ‘Crib Service’, something I had never heard of before. Upon arriving, I discovered that it was a reenactment of the Christmas story by the children of the congregation, much like the Christmas pageant my church holds back home. I was impressed to discover that the service was written by two of the older children, who decided to turn the inn and the stable of the biblical narrative into a pub, where of course it was Quiz Night. A good time was had by all, which was certainly not hurt by the Christmas chocolates handed out at the end.
I also attended my first Midnight Mass this Christmas, which followed the same general format as a regular service except for the addition of incense, resulting in the setting off of a couple of smoke alarms. The vicar took this is stride, reminding us that this is a season of joy and saying that we should take the alarms as a reminder that not everything in church has to be somber and serious. I enjoyed the experience, and I was quite amused by the assistant priest who told me, “I always quite like the Midnight Mass service; you always feel like you’re doing something slightly naughty because you’re up so late.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’m regularly up that late working on papers; he just looked so gleeful.
Probably the most unique thing I noticed about the Christmas season in Oxford was the prevalence of ‘Carol Services’ with a varying number of ‘Lessons’. I ended up attending three different ones, two because I was in the choir and one put on by the University Church for charity. These are services that are split into about 1/3 readings (the ‘lessons’), 1/3 carols sung by the congregation, and 1/3 carols sung by the choir. The service at the University Church also featured a short address by none other than Alexander Armstrong of ‘The Armstrong and Miller Show’! I enjoyed all the services, and I learned several new carols that I hope make their way to the States (‘Torches’, ‘The Calypso Carol’, and ‘The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came’, to name a few).
I’m glad that I had the opportunity to experience an Oxford Christmas. It was interesting to get a glimpse of how another culture celebrates such a special time. Watching the town decorate for Christmas was a visual treat, and with sunset at 4pm I had plenty of time to enjoy all of the holiday lights. Although I was very sad to not celebrate Christmas at home this year, I can still say I enjoyed the Christmas season, and maybe even learned something, too.